WHEN Manly parish priest Fr Frank Jones returned to Ecuador recently he was hailed as a hero by the slum dwellers of San Francisco.
Fr Jones set up a clinic, built a church and founded a school for the poor during his many years as a missionary, before poor health forced him to return to Australia.
“It really moved me – the love and honour the people towards me,” he said of his return to the people and the place that he loves.
“A lot of people were at the airport to meet me when I arrived, and then they got on a bus and we returned to the mission.
“And driving up the road into the mission, people were yelling my name ‘Padre Francisco’, so really it was beautiful. The people had remembered me and they knew that I was coming back.”
Fr Jones was invited to return to San Francisco on the outskirts of Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil to witness the fruits of his labour – the completion of a school for slum kids, with the first students passing through and graduating.
“It has always astounded me how God provided,” Fr Jones said, recalling his missionary journey, starting from scratch and winning the hearts of the slum dwellers.
He began as a missionary in South America in 1990, living for six years with the Mapuche Indians in the south of Chile.
The isolation was very painful and difficult and there was loneliness – “you have to be calm and contemplative in order to live that life within the Mapuches, and they in fact taught me that I was contemplative by nature”.
Fr Jones came back to Australia and to England for a 12-month course in human development, formation studies at the Institute of St Anselm, founded by the late Cardinal Basil Hume.
In Brisbane, Fr Jones also studied to become a nurse.
In 2005, he returned to Ecuador where the Archbishop of Guayaquil set him what seemed an overwhelming task – to set up a mission on the city fringe.
“I found poverty of the first order; misery. There was no running water, no electricity, just dirt,” he said.
“I found it very hard. But that’s what the archbishop asked me to do, to go there and set up the mission. There were thousands of people living there opposite the main prison, which is why they were there.”
Fr Jones was forced to buy land off the local mafia. It was a rubbish tip. He oversaw the site being filled with soil and rock for a church to be built.
“I found it very taxing, but very joyful to be there with the people from the beginning,” Fr Jones said.
Next, he built a small medical centre, which became his home as he struggled to keep the mission alive.
The challenges kept coming.
Fr Jones was under constant threat from the mafia. He needed a 24-hour guard, he had two dogs and his doors were made out of heavy steel with bolt locks. One of the nuns he worked alongside had a gun and she would shoot it in the air to scare off intruders.
“At one stage we were going to be thrown off the land. The police were coming to seize the land, a situation which can turn violent,” Fr Jones said.
“So I prayed. I prayed for an hour every day in the city, in front of a beautiful image of Christ that we would not be thrown off our land.
“It made me very close to the people because I was in their shoes.”
At the last moment, the local authorities stepped in to save the mission.
“They said because the Church is already there and providing childcare and have a nutrition centre and a dispensary had begun, they reversed their decision and allowed us to stay,” Fr Jones said.
“That was a great time. I was so relieved.”
After that, the archbishop asked Fr Jones to build a school – one that would educate the slum kids and change their lives.
“I wondered where the money was going to come from,” he said.
Fr Jones became Ecuador’s provincial for his order the Missionary Society of St James the Apostle.
He started to work closely with the Oblatas Sisters, an Ecuadorian congregation of women dedicated to education of the poor.
Fr Jones realised that it would be the sisters who could professionally teach and spiritually form the children and their families.
He returned regularly to Australia, as part of his obligations to his order.
This included returning to Brisbane, where he had a home in Ormiston, and to his Canberra-Goulburn archdiocese where he had been parish priest of St Peter Chanel in Yarralumla.
Fr Jones said the generosity of the Latin American mission group of his old parish was instrumental in building the mission.
On one visit a wealthy benefactor who had just sold some land came forward and handed Fr Jones a cheque for $250,000.
In Ecuador, he approached the managers of big factories and received major support, including from a paint factory boss who agreed to pay teachers’ wages in the mission school.
“That sort of generosity has to come from a person who is very close to God,” he said. “It has always astounded me how God provided. So with that money I was able to finish the church and build a convent for the sisters.”
Despite his missionary zeal, Fr Jones found his health failing – worn down by his daily toil in the slums.
He succumbed to parasitic infections in the lungs and worms that caused damage to his heart.
“I came back to Australia to have surgery on my foot and that’s when I found I was quite seriously ill and that I was advised by the cardiologist and lung specialist not to go back,” he said.
“I felt numb and very, very sad. And so did the people and the priests. But the decision was made for me.”
In 2010, it was the then Canberra-Goulburn Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who advised Fr Jones, for his own good, to stay in Australia.
Fr Jones was reassigned to the Archdiocese of Brisbane, and in particular St John Vianney’s Parish, Manly, and in the following year he was asked to take on nearby St Mary MacKillop Parish, Birkdale.
Fr Jones has kept his missionary work alive in Brisbane, with his two parishes now helping with mission work in Timor Leste.
The work centres on the Metinaro parish where a kindergarten is underway as well as the beginnings of a convent for a new community of sisters.
He maintains close ties with Ecuador – his visit to celebrate the completion of the Liceo Julio Matovelle school testament to his missionary achievement.
“It should be self-funding in two years,” Fr Jones said. “It was the Second Vatican Council that said missionary activity is the greatest and holiest activity of the Church.”
By Mark Bowling